Really nice slate for Week 9 of college football: three ranked on ranked, in-conference match-ups, each with huge divisional implications. Not to mention, we're officially in the back stretch of college football -- and that means games that leak into the earlier days of the week.
Just tonight, on Thursday! A ranked Appalachian State team -- first time ever ranked! -- goes against a stout Georgia Southern squad that lost only to Clemson. Both teams are undefeated in the Sun Belt, along with Troy, who put away South Alabama earlier this week to step up into a half-game lead. This game could essentially boil down to the de facto conference championship, when all things come to a close: Troy, Georgia Southern, and Appy are all in the same division within the conference.
If you can't get excited about a little Fun Belt Sun Belt action, you're in the wrong spot.
No. 25 Appalachian State v. Georgia Southern
The Mountaineers had two freaks on the Bruce Feldman Freaks list this year: RB Jalin Moore, who was lost to the season with an ankle injury, and redshirt sophomore Jalen Virgil (No. 81). I haven't seen much of Virgil, but I know he ran a 10.32s 100-meter dash this spring, and if I do the math...yup, that's insanely fast. I'll also keep an eye on Georgia Southern's defensive lineman Logan Hunt (No. 91), who's recorded 4.5 TFLs and 4 sacks in five games this season.
Note: Georgia Southern (+10) feels like value to me.
Baylor v. No. 13 West Virginia
If you're watching this game instead of the Appy/Georgia Southern game, we are enemies. But if I have to give you a battle to watch, it's probably still WVU QB Will Grier (No. 7) v. himself than anything else. The Mountaineers don't really have the secondary to put much heat on Baylor WRs Denzel Mims (No. 15) and Jalen Hurd (No. 5), so I'll be watching to see if Grier continues his cold streak that started against Kansas and carried through Iowa State.
Miami v. Boston College
Miami offensive tackle Tyree St. Louis (No. 78) is back on our watch list after a pretty strong day against Florida State's EDGE Brian Burns. He gets a two-for-one in terms of marquee competition here, with Boston College EDGE's Wyatt Ray (No. 11) and Zach Allen (No. 2).
If you missed it, Trev had a fantastic piece on this duo earlier in the season. St. Louis will mostly get looks at Ray, who typically lines up as the right end opposite the left tackle.
Ray doesn't get much the buzz that Allen, a rumored first-round prospect, does -- but he deserves to get some attention. He wins with good hand usage and a nice ability to reduce his surface area: he has a dip/rip and a snatch that both allow him to soften the outside corner and create an easier path to the quarterback. His bend is enough to work through a physical corner, and once he clears, he has really nice closing burst with a good tackle radius in the pocket.
St. Louis challenges rushers with size and agility, however, and that's where Ray can encounter problems. He has some good power, but he doesn't bring the explosive profile you'd expect for a player operating around 255 pounds. St. Louis has that first step ability, however, to immediately gain depth and win the outside path early -- so he has the opportunity to shut Ray down right at the bell.
In a tackle class full of projects, St. Louis deserves more hype. He didn't so much shut down Brian Burns, but he gave him a good deal of hassle -- and I expect he'll have a similar day against Ray, and even Allen, when he gets the match-up.
No. 23 Utah v. UCLA
This game will get billed as an important Pac-12 South battle, because folks want the Chip Kelly Year 1 explosion to be a thing -- but this UCLA team simply isn't talented enough to hang with such a well-coached, fast Utah squad. The Utah players I'll key on first: Bradlee Anae (No. 6) will be responsible for a lot of reads on the edge, and must show good space athleticism to impact plays as unblocked defender; and Marquise Blair (No. 13), the safety responsible for a lot of primary run fills. He's gotta tackle in space.
No. 9 Florida v. No. 7 Georgia
Pumped for the tweets from Trev leading into/following this one, independent of result. Nothing's better than an emotionally-charged Trevor letting the Twitter fingers fly.
There's a couple battles to watch in this one: Georgia RB Elijah Holyfield (No. 13) has a few big fans on staff, and he'll be quite a handful for Florida LB VoSean Joseph (No. 11), an undersized backer for the Gators. Joseph and SAF Chauncey Gardner-Johnson (No. 23) will have to deal with Georgia TE Isaac Nauta (No. 18) down the field, though the Bulldogs don't target him as much as I'd like.
My biggest attention will go to Georiga CB DeAndre Baker (No. 18), who made a bit of noise for me this week, absent from my Top-75 list. I have athletic concerns with DeAndre Baker -- he's wicked explosive and definitely physical, but I think he can get bullied by size given his thinner frame, and he's not super fast heading down the field.
He should dominate his opponent against the Gators in Van Jefferson (No. 87), another athletically limited player. A coach's son and Ole Miss transfer, Jefferson isn't super quick or super strong, but he runs very clean routes and addresses the football well through contact. Baker's a patient and controlled corner, and he should be expected -- if he is a Top-75 player -- to clamp Jefferson despite the receiver's clean route-running and deliberate work in space. Prove it game!
No. 18 Iowa v. No. 17 Penn State
This is mostly about Nelson, but we'll start with Bates. Likely a guard at the NFL level -- he played there in 2016 -- Bates struggles in space. He doesn't have fantastic reach, and I think his feet can get lazy at the onset of contact, which allows him to fall off blocks on which his hands didn't get fitted just so. As such, players who have the requisite quickness to draw out Bates' hands can put him in a dangerous spot and generate quick pressure.
That's why the battle with Nelson interests me. I'm a fan -- sneakily a Top-35 player on my board, Nelson is such a smart pass-rusher, and he wins with great initial hand usage, great secondary hand usage (i.e. counter moves), and good tackle depth recognition that dictates when to go outside, inside, and through -- he does all three with success.
I brought up Boston College's Zach Allen earlier: a big, strong, supersized defensive end with inside rush potential. I think Nelson fits that mold -- and is better in it than Allen is. Yet the buzz isn't there (likely because the production isn't the same).
What Nelson lacks is explosiveness. Generally an unathletic player whose ceiling is appropriately capped, Nelson does not have that twitched-up profile that typically causes Bates a lot of problems. He'll have to beat Bates, strength for strength -- and I think he will, because his hand-fighting is a few notches above Bates'. But Nelson has had some difficulty with top-flight opponents, and Bates is a solid college offensive linemen, so this is a big one for him.
No. 24 Washington State v. No. 14 Stanford
Had to get my Pac-12 finisher in -- you know me! I really don't know what to think of this match-up: Washington State comes off the huge day against Oregon and seems primed for an emotional letdown; Stanford comes off the bye with suddenly renewed aspirations for the Pac-12 championship.
Washington State matches up nicely against Stanford on paper, if you ask me -- I think their penetrating DL will give the Cardinal fits, and Costello will struggle to throw against the pattern-match ideas on the back-end. Keep a close eye on safety Jalen Thompson (No. 34) for the Cougs, who will have to deal with TE Kaden Smith (N0. 82) in man coverage frequently. Thompson is one of the better man coverage safeties I've seen in college ball this year, but Smith is a tall order.
Is Washington State RB James Williams (No. 32) the next NFL scatback? He's generated more buzz than I anticipated this season, and I'm excited to see what he does with it. He and QB Gardner Minshew II (No. 16) are the two Washington State prospect you just can't help but love.
Don't fall into the honey trap with Minshew against Stanford, by the way: this Stanford defense ain't jack. It's tempting to say the Cardinal is a resume game for a potential Draft QB, but not this year. Even off the bye, Minshew's gonna shred 'em.